Did Steven Moffat Really Just Confirm The Doctor Can Only Regenerate Twelve Times?

fb share tweet share

DoctorsIt’s a bit of Doctor Who canon that long-time fans have been pointing out more and more lately, as we head toward the introduction of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. The whole reason we’ve had more than one Doctor in the first place is because of the Time Lord’s handy ability to regenerate into a new body whenever he’s mortally wounded. Sure, sometimes he doesn’t want to go (*sob*), but it means he can keep on exploring time and space indefinitely. Except not really. The show established long ago — specifically in the Tom Baker serial The Deadly Assassin — that a Time Lord can only regenerate a total of twelve times. Who executive producer Steven Moffat seems to have just confirmed that tenet of Who mythology…so what does that mean for the show.

Moffat’s surprising confirmation came during a live chat show called Ad Lib Live, unfolding during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an enormous annual art festival held in, you guessed it, Edinburgh, Scotland. During the conversation, host Frank Skinner asked Moffat, “Do you acknowledge the convention that The Doctor can only regenerate twelve times?” Moffat replied, “Yes.” Here’s a twitpic straight from Ad Lib’s account:



The subject of the regeneration limit has been on Who fans’ minds a lot lately, for two very good reasons. First, Capaldi is playing the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor, which means the Doctor has so far regenerated eleven times. However, the recent season finale revealed what early rumors had suggested: that John Hurt was appearing in the 50th anniversary episode as a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor. All signs point to him occupying the slot between Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor and Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth, and that he is the Doctor who fought in the oft-referenced Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks.

Except…if that’s true, that means Hurt’s character was the real Ninth Doctor, which means Eccleston was really the Tenth, David Tennant the Eleventh, and Matt Smith the Twelfth. So, assuming that’s true and Moffat doesn’t have some sneaky plan to avoid the problem, that makes Capaldi number Thirteen…if the canon holds true, the final incarnation of the Doctor. So, given how successful and popular Doctor Who is these days, should we presume that the BBC has a subterranean vault full of Capaldi clones they can keep wheeling out indefinitely, or that perhaps they’re pumping him full of anti-agapic drugs so the show can keep on trucking forever?

Here’s the thing. I can’t help but think the specific wording of Skinner’s question needs to be taken into consideration. He asks Moffat if he acknowledges the twelve-regeneration rule. Acknowledges, not agrees with. I acknowledge that the tenets of Scientology exist, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go get myself audited anytime soon. Moffat’s certainly the sort who would likely take advantage of that bit of linguistic specificity, so his “yes” may be entirely true…from a certain point of view.

On the other hand, he may very well be sticking with the twelve-and-done rule…at least until he reveals some twist or bit of cleverness that will honor the regeneration limit, only to somersault over it and carry on about his business. It’s hardly been a immutable, unchanging rule over the decades. Former showrunner Russell T Davies had the Doctor joke that he could regenerate “507” times in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Master alone has tied the concept of regeneration into knots, and the Doctor is nothing if not resourceful. And does anybody out there really think the BBC is going to let their cash cow grind to a halt just because of a forty-year-old bit of Who trivia?

After all, if anybody can figure out a way around an immutable rule of Time Lord biology, it’s bound to be a bloke called the Doctor, isn’t it?


  1. D.B.Evans says:

    Keep in mind, the twelve regeneration bit has been exceeded in the past – the Time Lords granted the Master an extra regeneration. So it’s not a physical limitation of Time Lords, there is a way around it. Gaiman also mentioned this a while ago; his suggestion was that the regeneration was a lot like a speed limit which you could go past, but things got increasingly dangerous with greater risk of problems resulting from a regeneration going wrong. He also suggested that the Time Lords themselves enforced that limit. Without them, the Doctor can continue to regenerate, but with consequences.

    When the time comes, I’m hoping that the show runner (Moffat or whomever is next) doesn’t just brush it off, but instead comes up with something that makes us all go “wow”. When I was thinking about it earlier, I could see three obvious ways: Either as Gaiman suggests, it’s a limit that one can go beyond, and without the Time Lords to enforce it, there may be other consequences of some sort (either to the doctor or to those around him, or both), but he can technically go beyond; or he may have gained extra regenerations from River when she gave up hers to heal him; or, the Time Lords themselves may have removed the limit during the Time War to fight the Time War, the limit may have been removed so that they could continue the fight without depleting their ranks.

    But lets face it, the writers are amazing, and they could easily come up with a story arc that no one currently sees coming in order to resolve the limit. Still years to resolve, and to plant seeds for the eventual resolution of this “limit” for the Doctor.

  2. Goody Weaver says:

    All that’s going to happen is Capaldi’s Doctor is going to be all “Oh, I’m going to die now because I’m out of regenerations!” and he’ll look as if he’s dying, and then *surprise!* he survived because he got all of River Song’s regenerations! So now he has at least 12 more left! Whoopee!

    • JamesD says:

      I was thinking the same thing about what river did.

    • Galiant2010 says:

      But River regenerated a few times herself… the ones I can remember, she was a white baby, then Ponds black friend, then the adult River we know so well. so that only leaves 10 more at most, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “That thing she did for the Doctor” used one up… but idk… no more than 10 though, best case scenario using that logic

      • Goody Weaver says:

        Ah, right – I forgot about River regenerating. Yes, so maybe 9-10 more regenerations…

  3. Zleck Enerfuor says:

    Not for nothing, there has been evidence saying he goes Past 12 regenerations as well.

    The Master has previously stated, “The Valeyard, Doctor, is your penultimate reincarnation… Somewhere between your twelfth and final regeneration,”

    Now some people could simply put a spin on this and say:

    One, the Master is not someone to be trusted.
    And He simply was lying about the Valeyard.

    Or Two, John Hurt – The Ninth incarnation, was the Valeyard.
    But he betrayed the name, betrayed the promise.
    So yes he is an incarnation, but not a spiritual incarnation of The Doctor.
    Which makes for 12 incarnations of the Doctor,
    and 1 incarnation of the Valeyard.

    I dono.

    • cunningmunki says:

      I never understood the “somewhere between” bit. He’s either 12 or 13, how can he be 12.5?

      • D.B.Evans says:

        Even if the Doctor did take on an intermediate form, nothing in the show has suggested it could last very long before needing to select a final appearance. In the original episodes, when Romana regenerated, she appeared to be able to “try out” intermediate appearances before settling on her final regenerative appearance. But, those intermediate versions changed rapidly, certainly not long enough to attend a trial in an intermediate form.

    • Kriz says:

      Jhon hurt is not the doctor because of the things he did in the time war

  4. David Swanner says:

    Or it’s possible that he lives his life out of order in time and the regenerations happen out of time…

  5. Linda Gambrell says:

    River Song gave “all” of her re-generations to save the doctor…. I think that is a pretty big barn door right there.

  6. Jeff Brewer says:

    Here we go (this covers two topics, is quite long, but should generate a nerd-gasm (or perhaps even nerd-rage?) for Doctor Who fans…).

    First off, let’s look at the Doctor’s known (and assumed) regenerations:

    Assuming John Hurt is Doctor number nine, Eccleston is number ten, etc, then the limit of 12 regenerations is already a moot point when Capaldi takes over the role.


    Everyone, including the writers, it seems, keeps forgetting/ignoring that David Tennant regenerated TWICE during his time in the role. The first time he regenerates is when he is shot by a Dalek in “Journey’s End”. He uses the regeneration process to repair the damage caused by the Dalek’s weapon, then directs the remainder of the energy into his “handy hand”. The handy hand subsequently grows a new, half-human, Doctor from it, using the remainder of the energy from the regeneration process, so this must count as a regeneration (incidentally, I believe this half-human Doctor will be the 10th/11th Doctor who will be in the 50th anniversary story with Smith, Clara, and Rose).

    To spell it out, if Hurt is Doctor number nine (and regeneration number eight), then Eccleston is regeneration number nine, Tennant is regeneration ten AND 11 (and the 11th incarnation of the Doctor), and Smith is regeneration number 12 (and the 12th incarnation of the Doctor).

    Therefore, Capaldi will be the 13th regeneration of the Doctor, and the 13th incarnation of the Doctor. Yes, it’s all a bit wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey (and I’m not going to touch on the existence of the Valeyard here, as, at this point, I think this might cause the universe to collapse on itself, and be replaced by something even stranger… 😀 ).

    Now, regarding the number of times a Time Lord can regenerate:

    In Classic Who, it is established that a Time Lord can regenerate 12 times, and so can have 13 different personas. This was the accepted canon.

    It was also established in the 20th anniversary story, “The Five Doctors” (from Peter Davison’s era), that the High Council of Time Lords can grant an entirely new cycle of 12 regenerations to a Time Lord, as offered by the High Council to the Master, as an incentive for him to rescue the Doctor from the Death Zone on Gallifrey.

    I infer from this that Time Lords can regenerate more than 12 times, but the High Council somehow restricts a Time Lords ability to regenerate to 12. Their reasons for doing so are unknown, but it would make sense for them to enforce a limit as, otherwise, Time Lords would effectively be truly immortal, and would therefore be a powerful force of evil in the universe (as “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as they say), not to mention the problem of Time Lord over-population throughout the universe…

    If this is the case, then the limit of 12 regenerations may no longer apply, as there is no more High Council (and no more Time Lords, apart from the Doctor, and, possibly, the Master – what happened to him at the end of “the End of Time”, anyway?). Therefore, it is possible that a Time Lord can have unlimited regenerations.

    This theory is supported by the existence of the Master in New Who. In Classic Who, the Master had used all of his regenerations, and was living in a stolen body during the time “the Five Doctors” takes place. He was not granted the previously-mentioned additional 12 regenerations during this story.

    However, the Master managed to regenerate once (and possibly more, in between) more to a new body, and subsequently became the human “Professor Yano”. Yano changed back into a Time Lord, got shot, and regenerated to become Harold Saxon. When Saxon is shot, he is able to regenerate once again, but refuses to do so, preferring to die, rather than become the Doctor’s pet/ prisoner/ companion (although it turns out he expected his secret followers would resurrect him, and he would return as a Time Lord).

    So, with a limit of 12 regenerations, the Master has regenerated at least 14 times.

    My apologies for the length, and for the existence of this post. Sometime, my inner-geek gets the better of me…

    • Christopher Tkachuk says:

      Professor Yana (You Are Not Alone), but great theory.

      • Jeff Brewer says:

        Yep – guess I got caught with the “o” in “not” while typing it out…

        Curious, though, as to why the Master would choose an acronym that only means something to the Face of Boe and the Doctor, and that only they really know about. I’ve pondered that before…

  7. Rohan Yates says:

    What I’ve been wondering of late, is does Troughton’s regeneration into Pertwee count? It was enforced as a punishment by the Timelords, so given what amazing manipulators they were, would that mean that they can regenerate a Timelord without using a regeneration? Other thing to consider is as people have stated, the limit can be extended as the Master has demonstrated, but in ‘The Five Doctor’s’ the Timelords offer the Master a new set of regenerations in return for assisting the Doctor. So basically, the show has a few ways of getting out of the fix it’s in.

    • cunningmunki says:

      I’ve been rewatching the classic series this year (yes, the whole lot) and I remember thinking exactly the same thing. Seems a bit harsh to use up one of his regenerations just to change his face.

  8. K.D. says:

    I was under the impression that the Doctor, as well as the rest of the Time Lords that fought in the Time War, were granted a new set of 12 regenerations at the outset of the Time War. If Hurt is the incarnation between McGann and Eccleson and the incarnation that fought in the Time War, then Eccleson would be the new first regeneration.

  9. mieko74 says:

    Ah but didn’t River Song give the rest of her regenerations to him?

  10. Robbie Hunt says:

    I always assumed when Amy Pond reset the universe and remembered The Doctor back into existence that The Doctor’s regenerations reset as well. The whole thing seemed tailor made for that.

    But I never hear anyone else posit this theory. I imagine because the idea that it was simply a rule enforced by the Time Lords is rather compelling. But the idea that he simply reset his counter is ‘neater’ in my opinion.

    We shall see!

  11. cunningmunki says:

    The Master seems to have found a (as yet unexplained) way to continue regenerating past his 13th incarnation without the need to take over other people’s bodies (like he originally had to do).

  12. D.W.Fan says:

    When River healed Matt Smith’s Doctor in “Let’s Kill Hitler”, she poured her own regeneration energy into him to heal him. He says something akin to “You used to much” and I always took that to mean he now has more regenerations available than before. Just my thought.

  13. CALIGULA ONE says:

    I would love to see a series on The Master, plus if we are going to see The Time War and Gallifrey restored then who knows? 12 might not be the end.

  14. Kriz says:

    But do rememeber that melody pond (river song) have revived him using her regenations wich puts this into question. Could have river transfered ALL of her remaining regenerations to the doctor?

  15. Naufal says:

    What if the time lords gave him a new set of 13 regenerations during the time war

  16. Docdoom77 says:

    Let’s not forget that River used ALL of her regenerations to save the Doctor. Perhaps that gave him extra!